Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) and Lady Rose (Lily James)
Downton Abbey paints a fascinating picture of a royal presentation at court in Episode 4 of the series. The purpose of this event was for the upper class debutantes and eligible bachelors to meet and make suitable marriages.
King George V and Queen Mary King George V (Guy Williams) & Queen Mary (uncredited)
In Downton Abbey Lady Rose is presented to George V and Queen Mary. A very deep curtsey was required by a debutante as the presentation is made. Debutantes were advised to practice their curtsey and many were nervous about getting it right. Various disasters were reported with Debutantes either tumbling over or being unable to rise after the curtsey without the aid of a hastily summoned courtier.
Lady Rose being presented at court
At the presentation a debutante would be announced to the King and Queen and after a curtsey would make her exit, stepping away from the Royals without turning around, in order not show her back.
A court presentation signaled the beginning of the social season in Britain and Debutantes were required to have a sponsor. It was mandatory that this sponsor be someone who had already been presented to the King and Queen.
Linnie Irwin Sweeney, left, and her daughter Elsie Irwin Sweeney being presented at court in 1923
Court dress followed prescribed tradition, with most girls wearing white evening dresses, although pastel shades where also in order. Three ostrich feathers attached to a veil adorned the debutante’s hair and pearls and jewelry borrowed from family heirlooms were traditionally worn.
Debutantes were chaperoned at dances by any female member of the family who could be induced to volunteer. Many a great-aunt would fall asleep in the small gilt chairs that were provided at these formal balls while the Debutante in her charge would often secretly slip away unnoticed to a nightclub. To many a young girl this would be a far more exciting prospect than a society ball.
King George V
A Sovereign presentation was designed to show off a Debutante as she entered society for the first time and to keep her selection of a husband confined to an elite, upper class circle. There was a lot of pressure on Debutantes to find their future husband at the various balls and entertainments during the first season of her presentation. But sometimes this was not possible and a second or even third season was needed to accomplish this goal.
In addition to the balls there were many other chances for Debutantes to meet a suitable prospective husband such as polo matches, Royal Ascot, tea parties, Thé Dansant and a Debutant’s own coming out party. This festivity was sometimes shared with a sister or cousin to defray expenses.
Court presentations were removed from the court calendar in 1958 by Queen Elizabeth II, and attempts by society to continue them without royal patronage were unsuccessful.
This little bit of history portrayed so charmingly in these scenes in Downton Abbey are all the more interesting because, as mentioned, the ritual of court presentation is now no more.
by Diz White author of
Discovering a Beautiful Region of Britain on a Quest to Buy a 17thCentury Cottage.
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